Watching the Doug Baldwin and Jermaine Kearse Show following the NFC championship game, I wondered two things:
1. Does this shtick ever get old for them?
2. Is it a shtick?
Until Seattle’s overtime drive snuffed out Green Bay’s season in the NFC title game, neither receiver had done much to advance the cause of victory. Baldwin caught a 29-yarder to set up his team’s first touchdown, neutralizing his costly first-quarter fumble on a kickoff return.
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Kearse, for his part, endured a waking nightmare -- four interceptions in five targets; two of those picks deflecting off his hands, giftwrapped -- before his game-ending touchdown capped this postseason’s most remarkable comeback and brought down the thunder on CenturyLink Field.
Baldwin had set up that 35-yard scoring play with heroics of his own: he caught two passes for 45 yards in overtime. Like everyone else on this team, those two had exhibited incredible resilience just to keep the faith in a cause that looked very much lost.
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An hour after the game Kearse seemed emotionally whipsawed, still grappling with the magnitude of what he’d done. At his press conference, his opening remark -- “Well, that was interesting” -- unleashed a gale of laughter.
By his side, Baldwin was smiling, yes, but also edgy, and a little angry, in the mood to deliver a lecture. After reminding reporters of Kearse’s history of clutch plays -- he scored a critical touchdown against the 49ers in the 2014 NFC title game -- he chastised, “I think you guys need to step up and start giving my man some respect. I'd appreciate it if you did so.”
Kearse returned the favor, introducing Baldwin as “my teammate and … fellow pedestrian.” He said it tongue-in-cheek. When they hear or read any perceived slight, these Seahawks' receivers retain the diss, storing it as fuel.
It didn’t matter to them, in that moment, that for the first 60 minutes of the NFC championship, their play didn't even approach “pedestrian.” For long stretches, (and Green Bay’s scheme and execution had much to do with this), they alternated between invisible and brutal.
But in the end -- literally: their consecutive 35-yard catches were the game’s final two plays -- Baldwin and Kearse didn't lose hope, and as a result, Seattle didn’t lose. That gave Baldwin room to chastise an NFL Network talking head he’d heard dissing the Seahawks' receivers with faint praise. The offending announcer -- Deion Sanders -- had insulted Kearse, Baldwin et al by describing them as merely “all right,” and not a unit to “lose any sleep over.”
“We’re all right,” declared Baldwin, “and our all-right asses are goin’ to the Super Bowl again. So all right that.”
The truth is, Baldwin wasn’t much better than all right this season, and he was his team’s best receiver. His 51.6 receiving yards per game ranked 53rd in the NFL. Kearse, with 35.8 ypg, checked in at No. 96.
No receiver is going to put up Pro Bowl numbers in this offense, built as it is around Beast Mode. Many of Marshawn Lynch's long runs are sprung by the downfield blocks of Seattle’s receivers. All NFL wideouts talk a good game about blocking downfield. Some actually mean it when they say it. Seattle’s receivers walk the walk.
“We’re not just trying to clear you out,” says Ricardo Lockette, a third-year man out of Fort Valley State with an appetite for collisions. “We want to pancake you.”
“You can spring a running back for a touchdown,” says backup slot receiver and Cornell graduate Bryan Walters, “so you don’t want to be the guy who missed the block on the guy who makes the tackle.” Offensive line coach Tom Cable has earned the affection of the receivers for his habit of freezing the video in meetings, pointing out their downfield blocks.
“These guys have to be tough,” points out wide receivers coach Kippy Brown, “to start and compete against our defensive backs every day.” What’s more, he says, “Look where they come from. They only guy here that was drafted was Norwood.” Last spring, Seattle took Kevin Norwood, out of Alabama, in the fourth round. (Wide out Paul Richardson, a second-round pick last spring, tore his left ACL in Seattle’s divisional playoff win over the Panthers.)
“These guys have never been special, pampered, superstar kinds of players, ever,” adds Brown. “Every one of them has had to scratch, claw, and when they first got here, wake up every morning and wonder if they were going to get cut.” In this scenario, coach Pete Carroll and roster-churning GM John Schneider are dueling Dread Pirate Robertses, cheerfully signing off to players at the end of each day:
Good night Westley. Good work. Sleep well. I’ll most likely kill you in the morning.
“We enjoy the physicality of it,” Baldwin told me. “We do the other stuff that other receivers don’t typically do.” Receivers lacking that grit, that willingness to do the dirty work, don’t stick on this roster."
Must every wide receiver on the Seahawks turn sideways, upon entering that group’s meeting room, to accommodate the chip on his shoulder? I asked Baldwin if this was something authentic and real -- if he and his mates truly do draw motivation from being underrated. In the space of two sentences, he gave quite different answers:
"We want to harness that underappreciated, undervalued, unrecognized [theme], that pedestrian, average mediocre mantra.”
“Honestly, we really don’t give a s---. But at the end of the day, it’s fun for us.”
Three days later, in the moments after the NFC title game but before passions had cooled, Baldwin’s antics belied that “We don’t give a s---” assertion. He believed that he and Kearse & Co. had been disrespected. Based on his scolding of reporters, he could barely have cared more.
The truth is, there’s a reason these guys did so little damage in regulation against Green Bay. There’s a reason Schneider traded for Percy Harvin last season, only to cut his losses in mid-October. There’s a reason Seattle drafted two wideouts last spring. There’s a reason Wilson took five sacks against the Packers; a reason No. 3 rushed for 849 yards this season. He had to. His receivers, all of them undrafted free agents, don’t always get open right away. It’s not an insult to Kearse to point out that no one is mistaking him for Dez Bryant. It should not be a slight to Baldwin to note the difference between his skillset and that of, say, T.Y. Hilton. Yet all such comparisons are fuel on the fire for this crew.
Based on the numbers they put up -- not on the first-rate job they do clearing brush downfield for Lynch -- they’re OK. Ordinary. Middle of the pack.
Or, as Deion put it, they’re all right. And their all right asses are back in the Big Game, hoping and praying that the Patriots will underestimate them.